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Writing a Proposal They Will Want to Read

Be direct - don't obfuscate.

notebooks for grants and applications

Learning to write in a style that will engage a funder is perhaps the most difficult skill to acquire, but one that need not elude you if you’re intent on making a successful career in grant writing. When crafting a grant proposal, you just need to follow a few basic principles for success.

Keep It Simple

The first and foremost thing to keep in mind is the KIS principle: “Keep It Simple.” To be a successful grant writer, you may need to unlearn much of what you were taught in college about academic writing. I’ve seen grant writers who approach a proposal like a term paper, complete with footnotes, bibliographic citations, page-long paragraphs, and overuse of colons and semicolons to hold together sentences that, in their length and complexity, appear to have come from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.


The sheer volume of proposals that most foundations receive means that your proposal will initially be read quickly. Simple sentence structures, short paragraphs beginning with strong topic sentences, and important facts broken out in bullet points will best reveal the proposal’s main points and help advance it to a more in-depth reading.


Avoid Jargon

You should always make an effort to avoid jargon. That includes your nonprofit’s jargon, jargon common to your field, and jargon used by funders. Jargon is really just a form of slang, with no place in a reasoned argument to fund your organization. And think about it: one reason people use jargon is to show that they are part of the “in crowd,” which means that anyone who doesn’t understand the terms-du-jour is part of the “out crowd.” Do you want to risk making a foundation trustee think they are part of the “out crowd”?


“But surely,” you might well ask, “what about the jargon used by the funders themselves?” Granted, some funders write their guidelines in the kind of prose that requires a thesaurus (or insider’s knowledge) to interpret. If you parrot that language back to them, you’ve only proven that you’ve read the guidelines—not that you’ve understood them.


Consultant Tony Proscio made the elimination of jargon something of a quest, pointing out how using buzzwords weakens your message. It’s well worth reading his booklet to increase your awareness of the misuses of language that may be obscuring the case for your excellent projects and organization.


Write for Your Audience

Whenever you are writing, just as when you are speaking, remember your audience. And by “audience,” I don’t just mean the program officer who will first read your proposal or the peer panel that may review it—I mean everyone who will read it. Program officers’ and peer panelists’ knowledge of your proposal’s subject may well be similar to, or greater than, your own, but foundation trustees will also see at least part of your proposal, and they are the ones who will make the final decision on funding. Also, my guess is that if you use plain language in your proposal, the program officer’s summary is likely to be clearer than if you indulge in a paroxysm of jargon meant to impress them with your erudition, thus obfuscating the meaning of your primary thesis. (See what I mean?)


I’m not suggesting that you dumb down the proposal or define every technical term within it. What I do recommend is that you write your proposals on a level that shows respect for your audience and highlights your ability to communicate your nonprofit’s case to a lay audience. The experts will be impressed, not put off, by your ability to explain complex issues in simple terms. The lawyer portrayed by Denzel Washington in the movie Philadelphia was fond of saying something like, “Explain it to me like I’m a six-year-old.” You don’t have to go that far, but it’s a good phrase to remember.


Strive for a Conversational Tone

This is one of the hardest things I have tried to teach the writers I have worked with, but it is by far the most important thing to remember. Why? A conversational tone automatically eliminates long, winding sentences and excessive jargon. You don’t speak that way, so there’s no reason to write that way. Just as importantly, a conversational tone helps establish the all-important personal contact with the reader. Grants are made by individuals, not faceless institutions, and connecting person-to-person is critical in making a persuasive case for funding.


To develop a conversational tone, have a nonexpert read your proposal and point out anything he or she had to read twice or that broke the flow. Even better—read the entire proposal aloud. Can’t finish a sentence in one breath? Then that sentence is too long. Find your tongue tripping over a phrase? Rewrite it. The acid test is to read your proposal aloud to a friend outside the profession. I’ll bet that your friend’s facial expressions alone will tell you where you’ve lapsed into jargon or academic, or simply bad, writing.


If you can keep it simple and personable, you will separate your proposal from the dozens or hundreds of others and increase your chances for success. I can't close this article without recommending to you one of the very best works on writing well: William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style. Although originally published decades ago, there is no better source for clear writing and none more enjoyable to read.


Another article you might find interesting: 

The Power of Positive Writing


Other Writing Guides You Might Find Useful:

Thompson, Waddy. The Quick Wise Guide to Writing Grant Proposals


Thompson, Waddy. The Wise Guide to Winning Grants


Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die  



*This article was previously published in the NonProfit Times.

Free book!

An Introduction to Grants and Freelance Grant Writing 

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